By Roy Hattersley
Doubleday, 352 pp.
William and Catherine Booth, the "mother" and" father" of our nation's largest charitable fundraiser, lack their historical due. Exemplars of the Victorian zeal to reform and will to succeed, the Booths usually serve as historical footnotes to religious figures--including John Wesley, Phoebe Palmer, and Aimee Semple McPherson--whose legacies are, arguably, no richer than their own. A new biography by Roy Hattersley, a British politician-turned writer, offers a wonderful introduction to the couple that celebrates their achievements while honoring their humanity.
Both Catherine Mumford and William Booth were born in northern England in 1829. They grew up in what Americans would call lower-middle class families and became evangelical Christians at an early age. After meeting in 1852, they soon married--starting a partnership that spawned seven children and one denomination. Initially, neither seemed an ideal candidate for religious leadership. At a time when most clergy were well-educated, conversant with Greek and Latin, William Booth had little interest in books or scholarship. Catherine, his intellectual superior, was doomed by her sex; in the 19th century, respectable women did not preach or teach in church.
But Catherine announced early on that exegetes who restricted women's role in the church were in error. Galatians 3:28 "there is neither male nor female for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" was proof text enough for female ministry. While even her husband had doubts, she doggedly won him over and was, for many years, the family's chief breadwinner and the more famous evangelist of the two.
Hattersley duly appreciates the Booths' remarkable blend of religious innovation and social commitment. While other churches preached about the heathen poor, William Booth set out to save them. He met them on their own turf, holding revivals in pubs and tents, street corners and theaters. To the chagrin of his critics, he cared more for Christianizing than civilizing his converts. The newly-saved were put to work winning their fellow sinners. To the consternation of staid citizens, this meant rough-edged Salvationists testified in public, marched in brass bands, and encouraged women to preach.
Booth's social agenda was equally ambitious and irreverent. In his 1890 opus "In Darkest England and The Way Out" (a play on Henry Stanley's African chronicle), the General (as William Booth was know) envisioned a social scheme that rehabilitated drunks, prostitutes, criminals and the hard-core unemployed. Although the entire plan was never put into action, the Army did set up a network of homes for women and children, hotels for working people, hospitals, orphanages, and work stations.
Despite these accomplishments, Hattersley argues that the Salvation Army is just the tip of the couple's claim to fame. "The ideas on which it was built were at least as important as its size and scope. They played a crucial part in changing the social climate in Victorian England. William Booth--believing in the Christian duty to help both the deserving and undeserving poor--stirred the conscience of a whole generation and contributed mightily to the great vision of social justice which, paradoxically, sprang from those hard times. No one did more to convince society that that we are all members one of another."
In fact, the Booths vision of "practical religion" addresses the split between spirituality and social activism that bedevils our own time. According to the Army's teaching, the two are inseparable and, as difficult as is it to get it right (critics today still carp that the Army has become too socially-oriented), finding the balance is the only way to follow Jesus' footsteps. The Booths also addressed the contemporary quandary of how best to help the poor (as well as who among the poor to help). Rather than test or interrogate in the hope of separating the deserving from the undeserving poor, Salvationists helped those who were willing to work. (They also helped those who could not work.) They believed in restoring human dignity, saving families, and changing systems by changing people.Hattersley captures all of this and more. He portrays Catherine and William as life partners whose passion for God is rivaled only by their human frailties. They created a global movement yet seemed incapable of responsible parenting. They inspired multitudes to privation and sacrifice yet regularly ran off for rest cures and hydrotherapy. They rebelled against any external authority yet demanded total submission from their followers.
Elegantly written, "Blood and Fire" sounds, to an American ear, English in tone. Hattersley's writing is dry, in the best sense of the word and, when appropriate, arch. His straightforward style has a warts-and-all approach which, for those who have read previous hagiographic accounts of the Boothfamily or of the Salvation Army, is akin to a refreshingly cold shower. The Booths' eldest son Bramwell, alternately oppressed and ignored by his parents, is a psychological mess. George Scott Railton, William's prot*g* and the man who brought the Army to America, is brilliant but slightly mad. Catherine is subject to bouts of depression, William is a hypochondriac, and both aspire to middle-class comforts.
Army aficionados may find small nits to pick. One might wish for would have liked more about the Booth children, the Army's overseas campaigns, and the years after Catherine's death. (Most of the book is devoted to the Booths' life together, and William's years alone, 1890-1912, are given relatively short shrift.) Still, this is just a wouldn't-it-be-nice list for a work that is admirably stellar.